NEW ORLEANS (AP) — U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has introduced a bill to forbid the federal government from withholding money from programs whose participants engage in voluntary religious activity after a group that requires church attendance lost $30,000.
Landrieu introduced the Freedom to Pray act Thursday. The Louisiana Democrat has been working on it for a year since learning from a constituent that the Young Marines program in Bossier Parish might lose federal money because of what Landrieu described as voluntary prayer and "the mention of God in the program."
During that time, the U.S. Department of Justice withdrew a $30,000 grant.
The Young Marines of the Marine Corps League, a national group, describes itself as a youth education and service program for boys and girls from 8 years old through high school, focusing on character building, leadership, and a healthy, drug-free lifestyle, according to its national website. It's the focus of the U.S. Marine Corps' anti-drug program, it said.
The website states that each member must agree to "keep myself clean in mind by attending the church of my faith" and to pledge that "I shall never do anything that would bring disgrace or dishonor upon my God, my Country and its flag, my parents, myself or the Young Marines."
Under the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion, those requirements put it over the line as far as receiving federal money, said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Louisiana office.
"I think that Landrieu's Freedom to Pray bill is unnecessary, in that voluntary prayer is always allowed," Esman said. "The problem with this Young Marine program is they are required to swear to God — some god — and to attend church — some church — which requires them to have one and have a faith. Which is where the problem lies, and Sen. Landrieu's bill will not solve this problem."
But in a teleconference after she introduced the bill, Landrieu said the measure "is not promoting a specific faith — just requiring belief in something higher than yourself."
"While it's close to the line I think it's an important line," she said. "This is not promoting a specific religion. This is a voluntary program. People don't have to go to this program. ... We want to make clear that while it's important not to promote a specific religion, it's equally important not to push it away."
The bill itself would do nothing, Esman said after reading a copy: "It is the First Amendment in statutory form."
But, Esman said, "It's a good thing that her comment is not part of the bill itself. Her comment, if it were, would be mandating religion. Fortunately, what she says she's doing is not what the bill actually does."
The Young Marines' requirement for church attendance would exclude athiests or make them act against their belief, she said. "And that is a violation of the First Amendment."
And, while nobody has to join any group, she said, "the federal government cannot support a group that, as a condition of participation, mandates religious activity. That is where the violation occurs."
About 10,000 children and teens and 3,000 adult volunteers participate in 300 units in 46 states, the District of Columbia, Germany and Japan, according to the Young Marines website.
The contingent run by the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office has served about 1,000 students, according to Landrieu.
Asked about the church attendance requirement, sheriff's office spokesman Bill Davis said the sheriff's office does not require church membership for Young Marines. "The members learn five creeds as part of the Young Marines National Program, one of which is, 'Keep myself clean in mind by attending the church of my faith.' How they carry out that creed is their choice," he said in an email.
In 10 years, he said, the question of atheism and church attendance has never come up. "It still boils down to their own faith, no matter what that faith may or may not be," he wrote.
Landrieu's news release said participants learn "military history, close-order drills and physical fitness, among other important life skills," and are taught by "caring adult mentors who are committed to providing them with a safe place to develop and grow with special emphasis on the love of God and fidelity to our country."
Landrieu said many programs to help people get over alcohol or drug abuse or deal with other problems get federal money without "threat of losing government funding for voluntary prayer and for acknowledgment that God exists."
The Times of Shreveport reported that Sheriff Julian Whittington was greeted with loud applause and shouts of "Amen" when he told the 27th graduating class on June 29 that he would not remove God from the program.
In a statement Thursday, Whittington thanked Landrieu and Fleming. He also thanked U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., "and nearly 3,000 others at our 'In God We Trust' rally on Independence Day."
Sen. David Vitter and Rep. John Fleming, both Republicans, released a statement Thursday calling the Justice Department's action religious censorship.
"This administration knows no end to its attacks on religious freedom," said Fleming. "The Department of Justice is trying to pull the plug on a successful youth program in Bossier Parish because students are allowed a moment of silence in which they may choose to pray before each class."
Vitter said, "It's deplorable that the administration is discriminating against this laudable program to help Louisiana youth just because they mention God."
Landrieu said she has been trying to work this out with the Justice Department for more than a year. "They keep citing regulations and we keep saying we think the law is pretty clear."
"I think this is in line with the Marines of the United States," she said. "This is the Young Marine program — in line with the values of the Marines."